A ritual of genial paralysis

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Perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of Ehud Olmert’s largely failed three years as prime minister of Israel was his extensive yet totally unproductive series of meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Not a great deal appears to have happened there.

So unpromising was this summit institution that the Israeli political right, then in opposition, never bothered to protest. After all, here was a government that initially advocated unilateral withdrawal precisely because Israel "didn’t have a partner". Once that option failed due precisely to Palestinian behavior in Gaza, why should the public believe there suddenly is a partner?

As the Annapolis talks proceeded in the course of 2008, no serious progress was registered and nothing was put down on paper. Olmert never dismantled outposts, not to mention settlements, and never withdrew from territory, while Abbas never budged on the core issues of Jerusalem and refugees. If anything, Abbas made more progress than Olmert: the Palestinians at least began seriously restructuring their West Bank security forces; Israel barely released a few hundred Palestinian prisoners.

That this ritual of genial paralysis became institutionalized is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the Olmert-Abbas track was paralleled by an equally unproductive negotiating track between Israeli FM Tzipi Livni and PLO Chief Negotiator Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). While Olmert "talked the talk" of a two- state solution involving considerable Israeli concessions and he renewed final status negotiations for the first time since 2000, he proved incapable of breaking new ground in peace talks with the PLO despite the potential backing of at least 70 members of Knesset.

Here and there Olmert was more successful in alternative pursuits. On the Syrian front, he both reopened peace negotiations and reportedly directed the bombing of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear project- -without one initiative adversely affecting the other. And his government can be said to have "failed less" in the economic sphere than those of parallel economies in the West confronting the global economic crisis.

Olmert’s peace process failures are intimately linked to his close relations with the Bush administration. Olmert either never grasped the full extent of President George W. Bush’s Middle East blunders or, due to a lack of understanding of the real underpinnings of the US-Israel relationship, he simply feared to confront Bush even when American policies that proved disastrous for Israel were unpopular in the US. Thus Olmert failed to challenge Bush when the latter refused to provide American auspices for Israeli negotiations with Syria, thereby severely limiting the scope of an initiative with far-reaching strategic implications for both Washington and Jerusalem. And he failed to recruit serious American involvement–in the form of permanent high-level peace emissaries and the necessary pressures on both sides- -in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Olmert’s two greatest drawbacks as a national leader turned out to be his lack of solid strategic thinking and his apparent corruption at the personal level. The first drawback severely constrained his capacity to navigate successfully the two wars he mistakenly initiated, to draw the US into more serious involvement in Israel-Arab peace processes and in general to manage the challenge presented by Iran and its Islamist allies on Israel’s borders. As a consequence, his government was weakened and therefore less capable of handling a robust peace process with the Palestinians that requires Israeli concessions.

Currently, we are witnessing the climax of Olmert’s extended mismanagement of the Gilad Shalit affair. Olmert nearly mortgaged a portion of the country’s security and possibly the balance of power between Hamas and Fateh to the fate of a single soldier. I recall asking Olmert at a closed meeting about a year ago what his strategy was for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. His answer: well, now and again we close the crossings, we retaliate for rockets fired at us, we boycott Gaza economically. In short, he didn’t really understand the concept of a coherent strategy for Gaza.

Olmert’s second drawback as a national leader, his apparent corruption, brought about the early end of his career as prime minister. Not as early as would have been healthy for the system: Olmert clung to power cynically long after a first indictment was certain, precipitated the fall of his government and new elections that his party failed to win, and in general lost total credibility with the public. Had he behaved less selfishly, Tzipi Livni (as prime minister) might still be pursuing final status negotiations with Abbas and Qurei.

Yet it’s doubtful she would get anywhere. Herein lies an important lesson: when it comes to Israeli- Palestinian peace prospects, Israel does not have a monopoly on weak leadership.

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